Title: The House of the Devil
Director: Ti West
Potential nominations: Female lead (Jocelin Donahue), Breakthrough (director Ti West), Best use of Tom Noonan
Notes: One of my biggest pet peeves as a moviegoer is when a movie pulls me out of the point of view it has carefully built for most of its running time. Most movies out there have a fairly omnipotent perspective, so there’s nothing to switch, but when a director makes the effort to make a character’s perspective more or less our own, it’s sort of disappointing when he decides to jump out of this POV without having a damn good reason to do so. For an extreme example of this, consider a purely theoretical version of A Clockwork Orange in which we see Alex’s parents at their day jobs, hard at work to be able to afford the lifestyle for which Alex shows such disdain. I posit that these scenes wouldn’t work, precisely because the key to Clockwork is that we’re with Alex every step of the way, and to turn his parents into pathetic breadwinners whose son doesn’t appreciate the work they do would undermine the strange and darkly comic tone that Kubrick went to such effort to achieve.
Such perspective-oriented hiccups are especially damaging to horror movies like The House of the Devil, in which the effect comes from experiencing the horror through the protagonists’ eyes. But although West has made a fairly sturdy thriller, he tips his hand at a key moment in the film in a way that pulled me right out of the story (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). That’s not to say that shifting perspective is automatically bad- when West cuts away from heroine Jocelin Donahue to the eventually fate of best friend Greta Gerwig, it’s done to establish the threat that Donahue is up against. But I can’t for the life of me imagine why West felt the need to show us what was behind the mysterious door. It removes the mystery- and therefore, much of the anticipation- from the film’s final reel, all for the sake of a fairly cheap shock tactic.
This lapse in judgment would be forgivable if the movie could rebound from it, but it never quite does. Much of the problem is that West is far better at setup than he is at payoff, as evidenced by the half-assed way the film’s climactic burst of violence plays out. However, for roughly an hour House of the Devil is surprisingly sure-handed. West shows a sure hand with atmosphere and tone, and is wise enough to take his time to really creep out his protagonist before the really bad stuff goes down. I especially liked the scene in which Donahue pops on her Walkman (this is set in the 80s, by the way) and dances around the house to the Fixx- an extended bit that wouldn’t pass muster with a less confident filmmaker.
Like many genre filmmakers who’ve emerged in the post-Tarantino generation, West clearly grew up watching junky horror movies on video, and it’s hard not to admire his attention to detail even down to the font of the opening credits. But House of the Devil isn’t self-referential kitsch. West certainly loves horror movies, but he also respects the genre in a way that demands that he take it seriously. He may lack the judiciousness of a horror savant like Bryan Bertino (director of last year’s nerve-jangling The Strangers), but when House of the Devil is on, it cooks. And that final scene is, in its strange way, sort of perfect.
Rating (out of 10): 6.
Title: 35 Shots of Rum
Director: Claire Denis
Potential nominations: Best Film, director, male lead (Alex Descas), cinematography (Agnes Godard), music (Tindersticks et al), cinematic moment (“Night Shift”).
Notes: Having seen damn near everything that Denis has made, I nonetheless feel like my critical facilities are inadequate to capture what really makes a film like 35 Shots of Rum work. It’s not that 35 Shots is an especially complicated film- to the contrary, really. Yet it’s this very simplicity that makes it such a challenge for would-be critics like myself. Part of the problem is the nature of criticism itself, with so much of it still rooted in traditions of the literary and visual arts. But while most movies can be reviewed (and fairly satisfactorily so) through these traditional means, much of Denis’ work tends to confound old-guard techniques and theories. Like her fellow Level IV favorite Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, Denis’ most characteristic work is not about shuffling through a narrative, but about creating a vibe much like a favorite song or a place you like to visit. And as you might imagine, there really aren’t words to repackage that for the reader. Oh sure, I could do the usual “blah blah Africans in France blah blah father-daughter relationship blah blah Ozu blah blah ooh purty.” But that’s a description, not a review, and that’s not how I roll. So I’ll just say this- if you already love Denis, you’re already on board. If you already hate Denis, this movie won’t change that. And if you’ve never seen a Denis film, this could be a pretty good gateway drug. As for me, I was hooked from the beginning. To these eyes, 35 Shots of Rum is a definitive hangout movie- the kind of movie I look forward to revisiting from time to time just to relax with these characters and in their world.
Title: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Director: Terry Gilliam.
Potential nominations: Supporting male (Tom Waits).
Title: Broken Embraces
Director: Pedro Almodovar.
Potential nominations: Music (Alberto Iglesias).
Notes on both films: Both The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Broken Embraces are the works of veteran filmmakers who are working squarely within their cinematic comfort zones, so it sort of makes sense to consider them together, despite not having much in common from a superficial stylistic standpoint.
In many ways, Parnassus feels like a textbook Gilliam film, with all the filmmaker’s gifts and flaws located in plain view. For one thing, it seems like he was even less in control of the film he was making than usual, which of course is saying something. This comes through most clearly in the performances, coupled with Gilliam’s increasing disregard for maintaining a consistent level or pitch of performance from his cast. This works out well for performers who are comfortable with onscreen riffing (little wonder Tom Waits gives the best performance here), but it hangs others out to dry- in the case of this film, the title character has almost nothing to do, and Christopher Plummer too often recedes into the background while those around him shtick it up. With Parnassus, Gilliam uses his actors predominantly as camera objects, particularly Lily Cole, who has an almost extra-terrestrial sort of girlishness that Gilliam utilizes to good effect.
But no actor in Gilliam’s film gets the same level of camera love as Almodovar gives to his longtime muse and Broken Embraces leading lady, Penelope Cruz. Ever since their collaboration began a decade or so ago, Almodovar has never missed a chance to make Cruz look her best (which is pretty darn good, after all), and this impulse comes to the forefront here, not least in a scene in which we see Cruz being made up and bewigged like the stars of yore- a Marilyn wig here, Sophia Loren eye makeup there, and so forth. Broken Embraces is above all a film made to illustrate Godard’s quote that states, “cinema is the history of boys photographing girls.” Accordingly, the majority of the story’s male characters- the controlling sugar daddy, his gay voyeur son, and above all her director/lover- carry on relationships with her in part through the camera lens.
It’s a solid germ for a movie, but alas, Almodovar’s tendency towards overloading his stories drags down Embraces. In addition to Cruz and the three men in her life, it’s also about the director, years later, coming to grips with his lost love, and about his relationship with his ever-dutiful assistant and her son, and about Almodovar’s love for the cinema itself. It’s hard for me to hate on a movie that’s so clearly steeped in cinephilia (Pedro throws out references to everything from Peeping Tom to Belle de Jour), but it all becomes suffocating after a while. That the film-within-a-film is a virtual remake of Almodovar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown doesn’t help matters, hearkening back to a time in which the director’s imagination was just as feverish, but to a more outrageous end (this is what makes Talk to Her Pedro’s best in a walk, since it lends the outré stuff real soul and emotional weight). By the time Pedro decided to resolve damn near every possible plot strand in the final reel, I was too busy paying attention to the self-reflexiveness to care. What does it say that I would rather have seen the proposed vampire movie than this one?
Of course, in its freewheeling way Parnassus is just as overstuffed as Broken Embraces is, and I suppose my preference for Gilliam’s film over Almodovar’s has something to with my taste in their filmmaking styles. However, I also think that while Embraces mostly finds its maker re-jiggering his personal obsessions rather than treading new ground, Parnassus is a film from a director incapable of treading water. For better or worse, Gilliam can’t make a lazy film, and given free rein here he sometimes flails about, but at other times creates some truly wondrous images. The Imaginarium sequences are especially vivid, and perhaps the closest he’s come to finding a big-screen equivalent to his classic Pythonimation bits. You could levy a lot of criticisms at The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but let it not be said that Gilliam is coasting.
Rating: 6 (Parnassus), 5 (Embraces).
Title: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Director: Werner Herzog.
Potential nominations: Film, director, male lead (Michael Shannon), screenplay, body of work (Herzog [w/Bad Lieutenant: POCNO], Willem Dafoe [w/Antichrist and Fantastic Mr. Fox), music (Ernst Reijseger).
Notes: One thing I find off-putting about most movies about mental illness is that there tends to be a fairly comprehensible method at the heart of the madness. This isn’t the case with My Son, etc., which most cinephiles know primarily as that other film Herzog brought to Toronto this year. And that’s kind of a shame, since while it’s not as flamboyant as Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, it’s a unique and fascinating film in its own right. But back to the psychological aspects of the film- or lack thereof. Throughout his career, Herzog has been drawn to various forms of madness in his work, from the violent obsessiveness of Aguirre, to the bone-deep damage suffered by the heroes of Stroszek and Kaspar Hauser, to the antisocial behavior of Grizzly Man’s Timmy Treadwell. But with few exceptions, Herzog has been less interested in psychoanalyzing his protagonists than in exploring the effect their illnesses have both on others and on themselves, and empathizing with them as he does with all the world’s oddities. So it is with Brad (Michael Shannon), a part-time actor and full-time mama’s boy who at the beginning of the film is discovered to have run his mother through with a sword. In the past few years, Shannon has become one of my favorite character actors, due primarily to his talent for playing unhinged characters. But his knack for insanity transcends his creepy mien- it’s almost as though he’s able to shift his mental gears into those of his characters, so that when Brad dances to his own psychological rhythm, it never feels like he’s simply “acting crazy.” And Herzog, for his part, puts Brad’s mind at center stage, marveling at his strange trains of thought without shying away from how dangerous they are for everyone around, not least himself.
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn.
Potential nominations: Male lead (Tom Hardy), breakthrough (Hardy).
Notes: It’s one thing to say that an actor runs away with a film, yet another to say that an actor more or less IS the movie. The difference between the two is demonstrated by Bronson, in which the film’s leading character thoroughly dominates the proceedings to the point where there’s almost nothing else to the movie. Aside from a few memorable directorial flourishes- notably a party in a mental hospital- the movie lives and dies by Hardy’s performance. Thank goodness, then, that the actor is up to the task. An actor I was previously familiar with solely as the wussy protagonist from Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy is a revelation here, with an eternally puffed-out chest and a tonsorial style that makes him look like Col. Blimp’s scary grandson. Hardy is actor enough to sell his subtler moments, but the meat of the performance comes when he’s over-the-top. This makes perfect sense, since the film’s central idea is that Charles Bronson (not his real name, duh) lived his life as a kind of performance art, with a commitment to be the most violent and notorious prisoner in the service of Her Majesty (30 years in solitary confinement don’t lie). Refn illustrates this both in suitably grotty prison scenes and in a framing device that shows Bronson onstage, telling his story to an audience that hangs on his every word. Ultimately, Bronson may be shallow, but it announces Hardy as a talent to watch.
Title: Passing Strange
Director: Spike Lee.
Potential nominations: Film, director, ensemble performance, music (Stew and Heidi Rodewald).
Notes: It would be easy to dismiss Passing Strange as a filmed performance piece, with Lee capturing Stew’s Tony-winning musical on HD for posterity. But to do so would be to overlook how exciting and imaginative this is as a film, with its whip-crack editing, precise framing, and close-ups of the performers that are so tight that one can almost feel the sweat pouring off the actors’ bodies. It seems all the more miraculous an achievement to consider that (a) everything was filmed during live shows with paying audiences, and (b) the editing makes it feel like it was shot during one continuous performance. Of course, it must have been discussed at some point to turn this into a more conventional adaptation, with location shooting and the like, and with Stew’s music playing under the action rather than having him onstage with the actors. But then, I don’t think it would work nearly so well- the story needs Stew there to comment on the action and even confront his teenaged alter ego, and the use of the same actors to play the surrogate “family members” the hero collects wherever he goes would surely have been lost in a (now thankfully purely hypothetical) big-budget adaptation.
Strangely enough, for a director who made his name on being a maverick (long before John McCain made the label fashionable), most of Spike Lee’s best recent films have been collaborative efforts. But then, perhaps it’s not so strange- Lee’s original efforts have become increasingly digressive and polemical in the past decade, but he tends to collaborate with people he trusts, and these collaborations force him to find ways to inject his sensibility into the mix without allowing it to overwhelm the material. For the most part, it’s working- sure, there’s the occasional misguided Miracle at St. Anna in the mix, but most of his collaborations are spot-on, and Passing Strange is no exception. No doubt part of this was a personal connection to the material, dealing as it does with growing up in the African-American middle class, the youthful urge to seek the “real” in art, and other issues of race and skin color. However, I also think that Lee, having attended Passing Strange on opening night, was simply overcome with joy, and he wanted to convey this joy on film by sharing it with moviegoing audiences. And in that aspect, he succeeds magnificently, creating as good a piece of pure pop entertainment as any this year.